Perceived impact of telework in general on various career aspects
Figure 2 provides an overview of the panel’s responses to the survey items relating to RQ1a. As can be seen in this figure, most panel members believe that telework has a strong positive effect in general. Almost two-thirds (65.7%) indicate that their overall satisfaction with their job increases with telework. Similarly, 64.6% think that telework improves their work–life balance, whilst about half of the respondents believe that telework helps to minimise both work-related stress (48.4%) and the chance of burnout (47.6%). The effects of telework on performance are also positively evaluated, with about half of the respondents asserting that telework (i) improves their efficiency in performing tasks (56.3%) and (ii) increases their work concentration (50.7%). These positive effects of telework on job satisfaction, work–life balance, role stress, burnout and performance are in line with the findings of previous studies [23, 53, 54].
Even though telework is mostly thought of positively, there are some downsides in the context of career development, future prospects and the social aspects of not working in a regular office. Most notably, about a quarter of the panel members believe that telework decreases their chance of promotion (27.0%) and hampers their professional development (29.4%). Additionally, more than half of the respondents think that telework harms their relationships with their colleagues (57.5%), while the sense of connectedness with their employer is lowered according to about half (47.4%) of the panel members. Again, these findings are in line with previous research. Charalampous and colleagues  noted that an increase in telework can isolate employees, both socially and professionally. In addition, Redman and colleagues  found that telework can reduce the support employees receive from their employer in their personal and professional development. This is also reminiscent of the relationship that Moens and colleagues  previously established between temporary contracts and loneliness at work.
Table 2 summarises the results of our descriptive analyses and linear regression analyses. Here, the responses are classified according to the personal and job characteristics surveyed, which will be discussed in subchapter “Heterogeneity in the findings” (in light of RQ1b). We performed linear regression analyses in which the standard errors were corrected for heteroscedasticity (White correction). Ordered logistic models and dummy specifications for the continuous explanatory variables included in the regression models lead to the same insights. A complete overview of the numerical regression results for the first item (i.e. perceived positive impact of telework on overall job satisfaction) is exemplified in Table 5 in Appendix B.
Perceived impact of extended telework during the COVID-19 crisis on various life and career aspects
Figure 3 illustrates that a large majority of our subsample with extended telework is satisfied with the increase in telework (65.9%). This result is not surprising, given three complementary observations. First, notwithstanding the sudden onset of the COVID-19 crisis that forced employers to rapidly transition to telework without being able to prepare, more than half of the subsample feels well guided by their employer (53.2%), which is a critical condition for successful telework . Second, the idea that the extended telework is beneficial for stress and burnout prevention, and on-the-job concentration holds for almost half of the employees with extended telework (45.7% reportedly experience less work-related stress, 44.7% note that they can concentrate better on their work and 42.7% believe the extended telework decreases their chances of burnout in the near future). In addition, more than half (55.7%) feel that extended telework has a positive effect on their work–life balance. Third, only a small share of the respondents with extended telework (17.3%) experience significant difficulties in combining different means of communication while performing telework.
Beyond the professional benefits, the negative effects of extended telework on non-career-related aspects are rather limited. About half of the employees with extended telework (57.2%) do not encounter additional conflicts with their family members as a result of the telework arrangements, nor are they more often disturbed by their family members (48.9%). However, the idea of reduced social interaction with their colleagues and employer are materialised, with almost two-thirds reporting a weaker bond with their colleagues (64.0%) and more than half feeling less connected with their employer (56.0%).
In line with our results, Bolisani and colleagues  found that the obstacles and negative factors of smart working were, on the whole, perceived as less significant than the benefits in their online survey of smart workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Syrek and colleagues  also found an increase in job satisfaction due to the extended telework in a Dutch sample. Furthermore, the research of Bolisani and colleagues  underlines the difficulty to maintain work contacts. Moreover, Carillo and colleagues  mention the lack of contacts and informal relationships with colleagues as well as the lack of feedback from managers as major obstacles to telework adjustments in France. In contrast to our findings, Syrek and colleagues  observed initial declines in work–non-work balance during the crisis’ onset (March and April 2020) but observe a recovery of this balance after one month (as of May 2020).
An overview of the results of our descriptive analyses and linear regression analyses can be found in Table 3. The responses are again classified according to the personal and job characteristics surveyed, which will be discussed in subchapter “Heterogeneity in the findings” (in light of RQ2b). The survey items are analysed by analogy with those discussed in the previous subsection.
Perceived impact of the COVID-19 crisis on self-view of telework and digital meetings
Figure 4 illustrates how the positive beliefs and experiences about increased telework extend to the correspondents’ beliefs about the future of telework and digital meetings. About half of the panel members foster a more positive outlook on telework (52.0%) and organising digital meetings (50.8%) due to the COVID-19 crisis. These feelings translate into an increased desire to pursue more telework (62.7%) and to have more digital meetings (48.8%). The majority of the respondents believe that both telework (85.3%) and digital meetings (80.5%) will also occur more often in the future. In line with our findings, Diab-Bahman and Al-Enzi  find that the majority in their sample of Kuwaiti employees hope for changes to the conventional working conditions post-crisis, too.
Table 4 summarises the results of our descriptive analyses and linear regression analyses. Once more, the responses are classified according to the personal and job characteristics surveyed, which will be discussed in subchapter “Heterogeneity in the findings” (in light of RQ3b). The survey items are analysed by analogy with those discussed in the two previous subsections.
Heterogeneity in the findings
Differences in the findings by gender
When it comes to telework in general (not in COVID-19 times), women are more positive regarding task efficiency, work concentration and relationships with colleagues. In this respect, our findings corroborate a growing body of evidence on telecommuting, such as the systematic review of Charalampous and colleagues  and the meta-analysis of Gajendran and Harrison . That is, women reportedly experience a smaller negative effect of telework on potential work–family conflicts and a greater increase in job performance compared to men. An underlying explanation might be found in traditional gender roles, which presumably give women more care responsibilities than men. Telework can be a way to facilitate this combination.
While women are more positive about certain aspects of telework in general, they are not significantly more positive about aspects of extended telework in COVID-19 times. Again, traditional gender roles might provide an explanation: it could be more difficult for women to combine care responsibilities with job-related responsibilities due to school and childcare closures in COVID-19 times .
Thus, when not faced with an epidemic, the women in our sample are more often advocates of telework. They even become more fond of telework (in normal times) due to the COVID-19 crisis and indicate the strongest desire to perform more telework in the (post-crisis) future. In line with the findings of Nguyen and Armoogum  and Wong and colleagues , increased opportunities for telework are perceived by Flemish women as a solution to pre-existing burdens. Before the health crisis, Flanders already saw an increase in telework—a tendency especially outspoken among women . The obligatory telework during lockdown could have further stimulated this particular tendency. Whereas studies across the world indicate women’s mixed experiences with telework during the pandemic [36, 38, 39, 42, 45], cross-country variations on (traditional) gender roles—regarding the division of labour—could underly these differences in telework experience, and consequently, women’s post-crisis outlook on telework .
Differences in the findings by the number of resident children
The answers to the questions on epidemic-induced telework (as opposed to telework in general) substantially vary by the number of resident children: respondents with children are less satisfied with the extended telework. This is not surprising as, during the COVID-19 crisis, telework often has to be combined with taking care of children (due to the closure of schools and daycare facilities), which is a challenging combination that does not occur in regular telework situations . Unsurprisingly, they experience more family conflicts, are more often disturbed by roommates and find it more difficult to combine different means of communication during the extended telework. Moreover, they less often report an improved work–life balance, stress management, burnout prevention and work concentration. Our findings are in line with the findings of Nguyen and Armoogum , who state that females living with at least two children are less likely to have a good perception of homeworking in the COVID-19 context.
Differences in the findings by age
What telework in general (not in COVID-19 times) is concerned, older respondents more often agree that it has a positive effect on their concentration. This might relate to the study of Aguilera and colleagues , who found that telework is often associated with a quieter and less stressful work environment, which older respondents may benefit more from when it comes to focusing on tasks.
More numerous, however, are the age differences in the items related to extended telework during the COVID-19 epidemic. Older employees report that they can work more efficiently, have higher levels of concentration, have a higher commitment and have better burnout prevention thanks to the extended telework, amongst other things. In addition, older employees reportedly experience significantly fewer conflicts with family members due to the extended telework and are less often disturbed by them. Previous research has shown that older participants might be less accustomed to telework . Our results, however, show that their experiences with telework are evaluated very positively. This might be related to the fact that older people are at higher risk from COVID-19 , and, thus, are more appreciative of the possibility of working from home. In general, several studies show that the level of fear of disease or concern about the COVID-19 virus plays a role in the evaluation of telework [44, 46].
While older employees are more outspoken on the benefits of telework in our sample, Raišiene and colleagues  find the opposite. In their study, older generations of employees in Lithuania tend to emphasize the disadvantages of telework, while younger employees tend to emphasize the advantages rather than the disadvantages of telework. Again, cultural differences might help in explaining these opposed findings. The authors state that Lithuanian companies have not enabled their employees to telework at the same rate as companies in other European countries have since 2005 . Possibly, older employees (who thus belong to a generation that did not grow up with digital technologies) originating from a country where telework is less familiar might be more sceptical towards this new way of working. Another explanation could be the limited sample size in the study of Raišiene and colleagues , especially in comparison with our sample.
Differences in the findings by education level
Respondents who attained a tertiary level of education are less positive when it comes to the effects of telework in general on promotion opportunities, professional development, task efficiency, commitment and relationships with colleagues. This is surprising because highly skilled and autonomous workers are the most likely group of workers to telecommute . An explanation for this finding might be that these workers, being the most likely to telecommute, might already have been accustomed to the benefits of telework. Being more familiar with and being more accustomed to the benefits of telework, can also help in explaining why employees with a tertiary level of education more often state (i) to be well guided by their employer during extended telework in COVID-19 times, (ii) not perceiving difficulties to convince their employer to introduce extended telework because of the pandemic, (iii) not having a more positive self-view on telework because of the COVID-19 crisis and (iv) not hoping to telework more often in the future.
In line with our results on professional isolation, Raišiene and colleagues  also find evidence of concerns about missing important information and doubts regarding manager’s evaluation amongst higher educated employees. However, they do observe that higher educated employees experience a higher self-confidence and satisfaction with the opportunity to make independent decisions thanks to the extended telework, while lower educated employees face a lower involvement and organizational commitment due to the extended telework. The authors interpret these results in terms of the nature of the work performed by higher educated employees compared to lower educated employees, which can help in explaining the difference with our findings (as we take into account task characteristics like autonomy, interaction and dependency, while Raišiene and colleagues  do not).
Differences in the findings by migration background
Interestingly, the respondents with a migration background in our panel report stronger positive effects of both telework in general as well as the extended telework than employees without a migration background. More precisely, they report a stronger positive impact of telework in general on their relationships with their colleagues and a higher commitment towards their employer. The latter also applies to extended telework. Moreover, they experience fewer professional conflicts and also found it less difficult to convince their employer to allow them to telecommute during the COVID-19 crisis.
Although these findings might equally relate to a selection problem, in the sense that a selective subset of persons with a migration background might have selected themselves for our sample, we put forward two potential explanations why employees with a migration background might fare better than others on these aspects. A first explanation is based on discrimination research that shows that, in jobs where interaction with colleagues and customers is prominent, ethnic minorities are more likely to be discriminated against in the selection process [68,69,70,71,72,73]. Under the assumption that telework, by definition, reduces physical, personal interaction , the negative effects of the perceived discrimination may be reduced. A second explanation lies in the claim that ethnic salience—the extent to which one’s personally identifying characteristics and affiliations underscore one’s ethnicity (e.g. skin tone)—also contributes to increased discriminatory behaviour in a professional work context [74,75,76,77]. Working from home could make one's personal characteristics less conspicuous due to the barrier created by remoteness. Direct colleagues, for example, literally see each other less frequently (i.e. they have less face-to-face interaction [78, 79]). In these instances, ethnic cues are less noticeable and, potentially, diminish the negative repercussions of discriminatory behaviour.
Differences in the findings by health status
Employees that were uncertain about being infected by COVID-19 and employees that suspect or know they had been infected by COVID-19 at the moment of the data collection are more positive on the effect of extended telework on stress management, burnout prevention, work concentration and work–life balance (compared to employees that were (rather) sure they were not infected). An explanation could be that extended telework provides these employees with more peace of mind which could have a positive effect on their stress, burnout, concentration and work–life balance. In addition, employees that worry about their health might be more appreciative of the possibility of working from home.
Differences in the findings by job characteristics
Respondents who strongly depend on others in their job, as well as those who receive a lot of feedback, share the positive views of telework in general on work–life balance, stress management and burnout prevention less often. When one’s job is highly dependent on others, coordination problems with colleagues due to telework likely occur more frequently. Such coordination problems can cause enhanced negative consequences for telework . In turn, respondents who receive a lot of feedback, which is considered an important aspect of job satisfaction and job performance [80, 81], might fear receiving less feedback when performing telework. In this respect, previous research has indeed shown that reduced face-to-face interaction restricts the possibility of giving immediate feedback or praise [30, 82]. This is exemplified by the findings of Carillo and colleagues , who identified that feedback (from the manager and the organisation at large) is one of the major obstacles in transitioning to extended telework in COVID-19 times.
Similar to general telework in normal times, those respondents who are more dependent on others in their jobs encounter more negative consequences from extended telework due to the COVID-19 crisis. In particular, during this period of extended telework, they report more conflicts with colleagues and family, are more disturbed by roommates, and have a harder time combining the different means of communication available to them. This is in line with the study of Carillo and colleagues  where work interdependence was found to negatively influence telework adjustment and the study of Chong and colleagues  where the authors found that daily COVID-19 task setbacks are positively related to next-day work withdrawal behaviour, especially for teleworkers who have higher task interdependence with their colleagues.
Lower general satisfaction with extended telework also applies to respondents who are used to receiving a lot of feedback, as well as those who are used to a lot of interaction outside their organisation and those experiencing high levels of job autonomy. The latter has also previously been reported (in non-COVID-19 times) by Baltes, Briggs, Huff, Wright, and Neuman  and Allen and Shockley , who found that managers and professionals who experience a greater degree of autonomy in their jobs benefitted to a lesser extent from flexible work arrangements in terms of work–life balance because telework potentially did not greatly alter their job characteristics. More detail on the differences based on job characteristics in the results concerning extended telework can be found in Table 3.
Finally, respondents who experience a high level of autonomy less often report an increasingly positive view on telework in COVID-19 times and have less of a desire to telework more in the future. The latter is also the case for respondents who receive a lot of feedback on their job. As illustrated above, the fear of a reduction in feedback might be related to this.
Differences in the findings by sector
Due to the large and diverse sample, our survey also allows for an initial exploration of differences in perception across sectors.Footnote 1 First, workers active in education are less likely to experience the (potential) advantages of the suddenly extended telework. More concretely, compared to other sectors, workers in education report fewer gains in efficiency and concentration. These results can be explained by the numerous challenges educators face in terms of online learning and student assessments . Second, we find that, in some sectors, workers experience more problems in combining different means of communication (the average across the total sample equals 17.3%). In particular, workers active in ICT, research and development and sales attest to this. One explanation for this result might be that workers from these sectors already spent a substantial amount of time organising electronic communication and, hence, have an increased risk of communication overload due to extended telework [e.g. 86]. In any case, our finding that approximately one in six Flemish workers experiences trouble in combining different sources of communication highlights the value of proper education on digital communication—even more so in the already digitally savvy sectors such as ICT, research and development and sales.
In general, the data suggest that many workers across sectors are won over by digital meetings. Indeed, 50.8% of the respondents in our sample hopes to have more digital meetings in the future. However, we find substantial heterogeneity across sectors in the impact of COVID-19 on perceptions regarding telework and digital meetings. We find that these hopes are even more common in sectors like human resources, management, marketing, education and sales. In contrast, we find that, again, workers from the ICT sector were less likely to report a positive impact of COVID-19 on their views regarding telework. These results implicate that, in the general workforce, there could be a willingness for further explorations of hybrid forms of tele- and on-site work. For policymakers, we believe this heterogeneity in perceptions creates opportunities to guide the implementation of post-crisis telework through sector-specific agreements. This could be especially interesting in the Belgian (Flemish) context given Belgium’s rich collective bargaining structure [e.g. 87].